In some ways, Alexi Murdoch and Mount Moriah—coming to Reynolds Theater on October 22—have much in common. Both are pop-folk acts who thrive on sharp songwriting and DIY spirit, having earned their reputations without the benefit of an outside record label. Both have ties to Durham, and both make music that is heavily shaped by personal geography. The latter point is where they interestingly diverge: Murdoch’s wanderlust and Heather McEntire of Mount Moriah’s strong local roots produce two very different perspectives on self and place.
Murdoch’s Towards the Sun EP, released earlier this year, was recorded mainly on a single night in Vancouver in 2009—a marked change of pace from the two years that he spent on his 2006 debut LP, Time Without Consequence. The brevity and immediacy of the new work suits Murdoch’s knack for calm, considered melody writing, especially with help from the stately Ohio rock band The National and the Balkan folk-inspired Beirut. An artist whose big break came from a song placement on The O.C., and whose film work includes most of the soundtrack to 2009’s Away We Go, Murdoch is often compared to fellow Englishman Nick Drake, though he also resonates with modern sensitive folkies like José González.
Born in London; raised in Scotland, Greece, and France; and—after a stop in Durham to study with Reynolds Price at Duke—moving on to Los Angeles and Berlin, Murdoch is internally directed rather than geographically defined. “I’m a definite believer that solitude is a very integral and important part of the human experience,” he told Spinner.com in March. In his music, you feel the lonesomeness of travel more than its colorful variety; a diffusion of identity rather than an accumulation. In a way, his music fits perfectly with what Brian Howe recently dubbed “The New Authenticity,” defined as being “not about embracing where you’re from, but rather knitting together an eclectic variety of fixations that say something true about who you are.”
Murdoch’s music makes you understand how being from a lot of places can make your comfort zone almost entirely within yourself. The opposite is true of the undeniably North Carolinian Mount Moriah. Like Murdoch, McEntire writes songs that are concerned with the workings of relationships; unlike Murdoch, her songs often directly address a “You,” whether it’s McEntire’s real-life mother or a very specific-sounding ex-lover. The music is shaped by events that took place in North Carolina (read more about the back-story in this Indy interview), where McEntire and guitarist Jenks Miller have long lived; the band’s name is Biblical but also a road between Chapel Hill and Durham; the lyrical perspective is defined by growing up different in the South. While “place” is evanescent in Murdoch’s music, it presses down heavily in McEntire’s, with its payload of gender norms, economic perils, and religious pressures to surmount. McEntire has no choice but to confront the South’s complicated social climate, finding both comfort and conflict in its traditions.
Where Murdoch’s music emphasizes the gentleness of folk, Mount Moriah brings out the sharp edges, subverting the forms of traditional country music simply by being honest about their personal experience, which doesn’t align with traditional rural values. McEntire’s plaintive but steely vocals range from P.J. Harvey-rawness to a Dolly Parton-like coo, wrapped around with Miller’s lyrically spare guitar lines. With Murdoch as the headliner and Mount Moriah as the opener, this will be a sharply contrasting bill at Reynolds, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear the same thing from different angles: a musical search for the nature of home, which is a moving target for wanderers and nesters alike.